Most stolen items from Operation Smoke Screen returned to owners

Eric Brown never expected to see his laptop again.

In January, his sister-in-law’s home was burglarized and his laptop was stolen, along with a few other items. Brown thought he had to face the fact that it was gone for good.

Then he got a phone call from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office saying the laptop had been recovered during Operation Smoke Screen.

“I thought it was a lost cause,” he said while picking up his undamaged Samsung laptop from the evidence room. “This is great.”

On Feb. 28, when police made Smoke Screen public, there were several rooms of stolen items worth about $500,000 – everything from televisions and lawn equipment to cars and ATVs. Less than one month later, there is only one room of items left.

Capt. Scott Peebles said investigators have returned to owners about 99 percent of the stolen property collected during the seven-month undercover operation out of an illegal pawn shop on Peach Orchard Road called Cheap Cigarettes II. Ninety suspects have been arrested and investigators are looking for about 15 more.

Smoke Screen was a relatively short operation compared to two previous ones. Augusta Ink lasted 16 months and Fox Hunt lasted 19 months. In an operation focused on stolen property, as opposed to drugs and guns such as the last two, police had to keep it short because, essentially, they are buying stolen property and paying criminals.

In the case of Smoke Screen, investigators moved into an already functioning illegal store and spent just enough time there to identify the people selling the stolen items. As soon as they did that, the arrests began and the operation ended.

“In every community, there are places like (Cheap Cigarettes II),” he said. “All we did was take over so we could bring the criminals in.”

In all, Smoke Screen cost about $150,000. The sheriff’s office used seized money from drug deals and other forfeiture items to pay for the stolen merchandise. Peebles said a decision hasn’t been made about what happens to any unclaimed or legitimately sold items.

Peebles said Smoke Screen was by far the most complicated operation yet because the officers had to become business owners. In Smoke Screen, there were legitimate and illegal sales happening simultaneously, so investigators had to track everything and keep inventory while making sure they knew who brought in each item.

“It was a logistical nightmare,” Peebles said. “We’re not business owners; we’re investigators.”

Finding owners of the property became complicated as well. Investigator Charles M. Mulherin has spent the bulk of his time trying to find owners.

“The biggest hurdle was the lack of serial numbers people knew,” he said.

Mulherin said more than 75 percent of the items didn’t have a recorded serial number. For items such as computers or games in which there is no serial number, he looks for gaming profiles and resumes.

If the computer or game is locked, he can subpoena the company to try to find a registered owner.

“It was eye-opening for me,” Mulherin said after admitting he did not write down the serial numbers of his possessions until taking part in this operation.

Returning the stolen items to their owners has been a satisfying part of the job, he said. He has gotten several reactions, including someone screaming into the phone with joy.

“People have been overwhelmingly happy,” he said.

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